JERUSALEM — After Israel’s inability last summer to achieve a conclusive victory over Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, public pressure forced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government to appoint a commission to examine the causes of this surprising failure. How could a small militia, numbering less than a few thousand combatants, survive the onslaught of the Middle East’s most formidable military machine?
The commission, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Eliyahu Winograd, has just published its interim report. Its criticism of Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz — set forth in a detailed and meticulous 117-page assessment — is harsh, but not surprising. The Winograd Commission articulated what most Israelis already think: Olmert and Peretz lacked the military, security and policy experience to confront a terrorist organization that raided Israeli territory, killed a number of soldiers and kidnapped two, and then launched thousands of rockets on civilian targets for over a month.
Indeed, the inexperience of the prime minister and the defense minister are unprecedented in Israel’s history. Olmert, who stepped into Ariel Sharon’s shoes as leader of the new Kadima Party, was considered a competent but lackluster parliamentarian — and later mayor of Jerusalem — who was known more for his polemic style than for his political stature or gravitas.
For most Israelis, even those who voted for him as the bearer of Sharon’s legacy after the Gaza disengagement, Olmert thus remained the accidental prime minister. Likewise, Peretz, a rabble-rousing but effective trade unionist, surprised all when he won the Labor Party’s leadership primary and then chose the defense portfolio over the treasury.
To many, the duo of Olmert and Peretz seemed to invite trouble. Precisely because Israelis are aware of the constant security threat facing their country, they have always believed that their leaders should be able to lead Israel in war — but also to ask the military tough questions when diplomacy may fail.
When such a moment arrived, totally out of the blue (or so it seemed) with Hezbollah’s raid on July 12, 2006, Israel’s two top politicians were completely out of their depth, stumbling into a war for which neither they nor the Israeli Army were prepared. The military was led — for the first time in its history — by an Air Force general, Dan Halutz, who believed that everything could be solved by air power, creating a combustible combination of civilian ignorance and military arrogance.
In measured but devastating prose, the Winograd Commission gives failing marks to all three leaders. Olmert decided to go into battle recklessly and unaware of the consequences. Peretz was unable to gauge the strategic implications of his decisions. And Halutz failed to present the civilian leadership with the full panoply of military options at the army’s disposal.
Halutz already resigned a few months ago. But both Olmert and Peretz have declared that, despite the Commission’s conclusions, they would not quit: Instead, they have vowed to implement the report’s many far-reaching substantive recommendations about policy, strategy and decision-making processes.
Will Olmert and Peretz be able to stay on? Their coalition government enjoys a comfortable parliamentary majority; nor does the political arithmetic imply a viable parliamentary alternative. But public opinion — volatile and angry — calls for both to resign: a public-opinion poll conducted after the Commission published its report indicated that only 14 percent of Israelis believe that Olmert should keep his job, while less than 11 percent support Peretz.
Later this week, demonstrations calling for the government’s resignation are planned, and it will become obviously more difficult for the government to continue to function. There are already rumors about a palace coup within Kadima, aimed at replacing Olmert with either the deputy prime minister, the veteran Shimon Peres, or the popular foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. But it does not appear that Olmert will allow himself to be pushed out.
In fact, Olmert’s weak and discredited government may yet survive. If the government were to fall and new elections held, there are strong indications that the winner might be Binyamin Netanyahu, of the rightwing Likud, which was decimated in the 2006 elections, but is now patiently waiting in the wings. Many who want Olmert to go would still not welcome a Netanyahu comeback, which may also explain what appears to be an indirect endorsement of Olmert by the United States.
Only a strong Israeli government can make the painful decisions necessary for negotiations with the Palestinians to succeed. As a result, the prospects for meaningful continuation of Israeli-Palestinian talks look even dimmer than they did before. Indeed, the real loser of the 2006 Lebanon war was neither Israel nor Hezbollah, but, at least for the time being, the peace process.